Keene State College plans to reopen campus in the fall, but classes and student life won’t exactly be back to normal.
Students may be required to return to campus in waves, so as not to overwhelm the college’s capacity to test for COVID-19 and ability to rapidly isolate anyone who contracts the viral respiratory illness, should an outbreak occur. When students do arrive, their dorm rooms will have a maximum occupancy of two.
“We will not have triples, we will not have quads,” college President Melinda Treadwell said Friday, the same day Keene State and all of the other members of the University System of New Hampshire, along with the state’s community college system, announced their intentions to reopen in the fall.
“If you have a high-density, close-proximity living environment, you create — as in long-term care facilities — the risk where it’s very difficult to control if an outbreak begins,” Treadwell said of the school’s dorms. “And so that’s why testing is so important. Our ability to test or know the immunity status or COVID status helps us quickly remove from the general population individuals who may present a risk.”
As of the fall of 2019, the college had an enrollment of 3,528, according to the Keene State Fact Book. That’s a 34.1 percent decrease since 2009, when the college’s total population was 5,356. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Treadwell said Friday that the college is on track to enroll a freshman class between 853 and 887 students, which matches the school’s budget for the coming year.
Keene State is already working with state health and homeland security officials, and Cheshire Medical Center, to ensure the school has sufficient testing, tracing and isolation measures in place to reopen campus safely during the pandemic.
Along with UNH Police Chief Paul Dean, Treadwell is also co-leading a team to coordinate a system-wide reopening plan for all of New Hampshire’s public colleges and universities. She expects to present the plan to the system’s board of trustees at the end of June.
“I’m excited that we’ve reached the point where we believe the circumstances will enable us to control the risks associated with this, to manage with COVID rather than shelter from it,” Treadwell said. “... The plan will become an incident command structure for managing with COVID. This is how we will go into the fall with specific commitments.”
Those commitments, for now, include frequent and thorough cleaning and disinfecting, promoting physical distancing on campus and designating spaces to isolate anyone who gets sick, according to a news release from the college. All of these plans are still in the works, and Keene State is also looking at how it will handle class sizes and public events.
“Physical distancing in on-campus spaces is an important part of the planning discussion, as is planning for sporting events and other on-campus gatherings,” college spokeswoman Kelly Ricaurte said in an email Monday.
Teaching and learning will look different when Keene State reopens, too. The college is working on a flexible plan to offer a mix of in-person and online classes, depending on students’ needs.
“We’ll have blended classrooms, because there will be students quarantined, self-isolating, away, choosing maybe not to come back for portions of the semester,” Treadwell said. “So we’re investing in technology, professional development over the summer, so that our faculty are really ready to deliver the Keene State experience to a blended classroom environment.”
Specifically, the college is working to equip 25 percent of its classrooms with technology that will allow professors to stream live audio and video of their classes, Treadwell said. Keene State is also seeking state and federal funding to procure technology bundles, including hardware and Internet connectivity software, for students who lack sufficient technological resources for remote learning.
“What we have learned this semester is students who could engage, who had good connectivity, they felt really confident about the experiences they were having, and they felt that they really could engage with our faculty,” Treadwell said. “If students didn’t have that, it was a much less positive experience, and there is some subset of our student population, based on where they are, that their high-speed Internet is spotty, at best.”
Keene State has begun surveying students and faculty on the successes of remote leaning and potential improvements, and intends to incorporate that feedback into its plans moving forward. The college is hosting a series of webinars this week with current and prospective students to seek additional assessments of distance-learning procedures.
In addition to helping Keene State prepare to reopen campus in the fall, Treadwell said conversations like these also help shape the future of education, which she views as increasingly digital and collaborative.
“I think we have the chance, because COVID challenged us in a way we never would have been challenged otherwise, to think about higher ed and what it means on a campus like Keene State that values community so much, how do we create that,” she said. “Whether people are with us or distant, how do we create that same feel? And so there’s a lot of thought going into that right now.”
Keene State announced on March 18, in the middle of its spring break, that students would finish the spring semester remotely due to concerns about COVID-19. The news came on the heels of a faculty member testing positive for the disease.
In the nearly eight weeks since, daily life and classroom instruction at the college changed rapidly, and dramatically, as it responded to the pandemic. Now, as Keene State begins to prepare for reopening, Treadwell said the school has the benefit of hindsight, and the time to plan carefully.
“And we have to do that if we’re going to try to open and not have the experience of the spring,” she said. “... But we’re really confident that we’ll be able to manage this ... and communicate about it while we also guarantee safety and get back to work.”